The Czechoslovak Review/Volume 2/How Two Czechs Died for their Country
How Two Czechs Died for their Country.
It was the New Year’s Eve, and very cold. We, the officers of a certain battalion of an unnamed Austrian regiment, composed of German soldiers, sat in the spacious living room of an Italian farm. There were things to eat on the table, requisitioned from the Italian population, their very last food: chestnuts, figs, apples, polenta and wine. Some thing was in the air; something heavy and depressive; it settled down on the thick clouds of smoke and on the faces of all present: No one cared to speak of it, yet everyone knew what it was—my friend F. and myself, the only Czechs in the company, best of all.
At noon that day the mail had come. When I got in shortly after from a drill, the orderly handed me several different Vienna newspapers, with an expression that indicated in addition to the usual servility something like malice. “You will be pleased, Herr Lieutenant, that we have one more enemy,” he says to me in German. “How is that,” I asked; “who is it this time?” “Just read and you will know all about it,” and clicking his heels he departed.
I run to my little room and pick up impatiently the “Fremdenblatt.” First page—nothing; second page—nothing. But the third: can I believe my own eyes? “Die Czechoslovakische Armee in Frankreich”—so runs the heavy headline, and underneath a whole column of comment; or rather of abuse and insults. I read hurriedly the whole article, and every expression of rage calls out a joyful smile. “Even though this event lacks all material significance, it cannot be denied that the moral significance will be considerable.” “I should say so,” escapes from my smiling lips, and I pick up the “Tagblatt.” Just then friend F. rushes in. “Did you read it?” “I am just reading it and feel as if I would like to dance with joy. But you look too excited. If the old man should see you, he would guess at once the reason.” “You are right; here even the walls have ears. Let us go out under the open skies, where we will be alone.”
There was no thought any more of hunger and fatigue. We tramped through snow drifts until dark. The joy of it, the enthusiasm. What are they saying in Prague? When B. returns from leave, he must tell us.
Now we were sitting in the big room feeling acutely the oppressive atmosphere. The others glanced at us every little while, as if they would want to read our innermost thoughts. “That is infamous,” started the captain, full of suppressed fury.
“Have you read it gentlemen?” A dozen heads began to nod, as if by command, and every face registered the utmost indignation. “I could not believe my own eyes; that the treacherous rabble should be capable of anything of that sort,” continued the captain. “They are not satisfied with the treason they committed in the Austrian army; they want to start an army of their own, and such an army! It is incredible,” and the indignant officer could not continue. The others now added their own comments, the choicest collection of cusswords and abuse, such as only an Austrian officer can command.
We two said nothing. At first perhaps the others looked upon it as natural, but their excitement grew, until one said: “Now there must be no more of this talk of different Austrian nationalities. A man can now be only one of two things: German or traitor.” “We have been the second for a long time,” said I to myself, but nudged F. to keep silent. Our silence got on their tempers. We would have been provoked to say something, if a new arrival had not caused an interruption.
It was the judge advocate-captain. The talk ceased, and the faces put on the stiff “official” expression. A few of the recently arrived officers introduced themselves to the captain, others were engaged in pulling up their collars and playing with their glasses. The silence was painful.
“It seems that I have broken in upon the gentlemen,” said the legal officer after a long pause. “Please go on with your conversation,” His pleasant face and the accent, indicating that he was not German, drew my attention to him. “We were just talking about the shamelessness of those Czechs,” said our captain. “I really don’t know what to call that any more. No doubt you read about it,” said our captain. “You mean the Czech army in France? Well, that should not be underestimated; it constitutes a moral factor, and the fact is that the Czechs are capable of anything.”
“I still cannot understand it,” continued our captain. “Now suppose I was captured by some chance, I would naturally be glad that I got out of it with a whole skin; especially if I knew, what would be my fate, if captured fighting against my own side. This must be merely a bluff, a French canard, don’t you think so,” and he looked at the others with confidence.
Twelve heads nodded in unison, but the judge advocate captain did not agree.
“In order to make you realize, gentlemen, of what these Czechs are capable, let me tell you a little incident from the victorious march of our armies after Kerensky’s defeat last summer.” And his face turned very sober.
“It was early in July; a clear and hot day. I was sitting in front of a hut which I promoted to my temporary palace of justice. I was listening to the guns of our division engaged in completing the discomfiture of the retreating enemy. So I sat an hour or two; you know, how it is. A man like me does not have much to occupy him at times. And the noise of the battle was receding. “I will have to move forward again,” I thought and decided to take a little nap first. Just then I noticed that something out of the ordinary was going on at the end of the village, nearest to the fighting front. There were a number of soldiers gesticulating in an excited way, and among them two figures in the green Russian uniforms. "As if they had never seen Russians," says I to myself and prepared to go into my hut. But I did not go in; as the group was coming nearer, I heard insults that were not usually applied to the Russian soldiers. The orderly was already coming at a run to report that the prisoners were not Russians, but the “white reds” from that lot that made us run a week before and who were now covering the Russian retreat; those two, he said, were found in the woods stunned, and now they were brought to me. “That will be a short trial,” thought I and ordered my servant to bring out a table and chair.
The group stopped a few paces back, and the sergeant led before me the two prisoners. They were tired, hardly able to stand on their feet, in torn and dirty uniforms. The older one was about thirty-five years old, a big, sturdy fellow with a bright look in spite of his exhaustion., The younger man was just past twenty, had a bloody handkerchief tied around his head and was apparently faint from loss of blood. Both showed the marks of beating administered by Magyar infantry into whose hands they fell. I was almost sorry for them.” And the judge advocate took a long drink to cover up his embarrassment, when he realized what he had said.
I sat down at the table to make the proper protocol. “What is your name,” I asked. No answer. “What is the name of your home town?” Again no answer. They looked at me calmly, indifferently, and the younger one was trying with his weak fingers to roll a cigarette.
I translated these questions into Bohemian—I am quite good in that language (and the captain-judge blushed a little), but no reply. I could not get an answer out of them.
“Then tell me at least what you fought for.”
“For our Country,” they answered almost with one voice.
“And your oath to the emperor?”
“We have no emperor, only our nation.”
“Do you realize what crime you have committed?” I asked them.
“The crime of loving our own country,” said proudly the older man.
These theatrical answers made me nervous. So I said sharply: “Do you know what is going to happen to you?”
The younger one straightened out and declared in a clear voice: “Those there,” pointing to the Russian side, “will achieve victory, and we two will suffer death for our country.”
That was the end of the protocol. I got their names from the papers in their possession. I sent for the provost who had a lot of practice in his trade and for some rope. Rope at that time was not so scarce as now.
In the meantime the two sat down on the ground and paying no attention to me, although they knew that I understodo them, talked together for the last time.
“It’s too bad that we won’t see Prague any more,” said the younger one; “but no matter, the other boys will get there.”
“I am sorry that our side have to retreat now,” said the older man, “but they are sure to come back.”
“We shall win; but it is too bad that I cannot even send a message to my Mary. If I wrote her from here and she found out what happened to me, she would lose her reason.”
“Don’t talk about that please. I have Hanča and two children”—and an involuntary sigh shook him. “Look, you won’t be able to finish your cigarette; they are bringing the rope.” But he did not show any emotion, as the provost with his helper came near.
Just then captain X. came up and tried to make them talk. He promised that if they would give him the names and exact addresses of three others, they would be only shot. They just laughed at him.
The provost tied the ropes to plum trees along the road, tried them out and reported that he was ready. I did no feel very easy, as I saw those two taking it so calmly. When you see the men whimper or struggle, you naturally want it over as quick as possible, but this way—. The captain looked over his audience, but no one even moved. So he went on.
The prisoners seeing that I was hesitating to give the word got up of their own accord and took leave of each other.
“Good by, Frank; we had some good and bad times together, but we were always good chums to each other, and now we can be glad that we die together,” and the older Czech rebel shook the other man’s hand.
“Good by; the boys will avenge us, and we will win after all. Turn around and look toward the West, where lies Bohemia.”
The soldiers that gathered around to witness the executions looked with respect on men who could die like that. The older man especially acted like a hero. He did not even wink and himself jumped up, when they put the noose around his neck.
As far as I am concerned, gentlemen, I really believe that only a Czech can die like that—so ended the judge advocate-captain. But realizing that he said too much, he picked up the glass and called for a toast to the New Year.
Later on F. and I were going to our quarters. Snow crackled under our feet and a freezing wind whipped our faces. There was the Piave like a ribbon of molten silver, and on the other side a new life, new aims, new desires.
I pressed my friend’s arm. There we must go, and the sooner the better.
In a few days I swam across.
*Translated from the "Ceskoslovenská Samostatnost," Paris, August 3, 1918.
This work was published before January 1, 1929 and is anonymous or pseudonymous due to unknown authorship. It is in the public domain in the United States as well as countries and areas where the copyright terms of anonymous or pseudonymous works are 95 years or less since publication.
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